Divine Purposiveness and its Implications in Legal Theory: The Interplay of Kalām and Uṣūl al-Fiqh

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  • 1 Stanford Law School


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While jurisprudents agree that the Sharīʿa serves to benefit human beings because God is wise and merciful, they disagree as to the nature of the correlation between God’s rulings and these benefits. Does God legislate with the purpose of benefitting consumers of the law? In this essay I investigate the Ashʿarī doctrine on whether God can be said to act purposively and how this doctrine influences legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh). I will examine Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī’s position on this issue in his theological writings and his work on legal theory. By focusing on one particular aspect of legal theory, I will demonstrate how the issue of purposiveness in God’s acts substantively impacts methodologies for the derivation of legal rules. I will then highlight the mechanisms al-Āmidī develops as a means of constructing a theory that maintains consistency and integrity, and compare his view to that of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s (d. 606/1209).


  • 2

     G. Makdisi, “Ashʿarī and the Ashʿarites in Islamic Religious History I,” Studia Islamica 17 (1962), 46–7.

  • 3

     G. Makdisi, “The Juridical Theology of Shâfiʿî,” Studia Islamica 59 (1984), passim.

  • 10

     Anṣārī, al-Ghunya, 2:1029; ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Shahrastānī, Nihāyat al-aqdām fī ʿilm al-kalām, ed. Alfred Guillaume (Cairo: Maktabat al-Thaqāfa al-Dīniyya, 1430/2009), 390.

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  • 11

     Bernard Weiss, The Search for God’s Law (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 2010), 34.

  • 12

     Bernard Weiss, The Search for God’s Law (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 2010), 49.

  • 17

     Kara Richardson, “Causation in Arabic and Islamic Thought”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (2015). <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/arabic-islamic-causation/>.

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  • 18

     Robert Wisnovsky, Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 186.

  • 30

     Zarkashī, Baḥr, 5:122–4; Qur’ān 17:1.

  • 31

     Anṣārī, Ghunya, 2:129–31.

  • 32

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:358.

  • 33

     Ayman Shihadeh, The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (Leiden: EJ Brill, 2006), 99. Sophia Vasalou offers an excellent analysis of al-Rāzī’s criticism of the contradiction in Ashʿarī doctrine. Sophia Vasalou, Ibn Taymiyya’s Theological Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 163–4.

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  • 34

     Zarkashī, Baḥr, 5:122.

  • 35

     Al-Shāfiʿī, al-Āmidī, 86.

  • 37

     Al-Shāfiʿī, al-Āmidī, 91. Al-Āmidī himself informs the reader that the Ghāya is an abridgment of the Abkār (Sayf al-Dīn al-Āmidī, Ghāyat al-marām fī ʿilm al-kalām, ed. Ḥasan Maḥmūd ʿAbd al-Laṭīf [Cairo: al-Majlis al-Aʿlā li’l-Shuʾūn al-Islāmiyya, 1391/1971], 5). This is also evident from the similar wording and repeated arguments in the sections from the Abkār and the Ghāya under study in this essay. For similar notes, see the editor’s introduction to the Ghāya (ibid., editor’s introduction, 14). Al-Āmidī reportedly wrote another abridgment of the Abkār entitled Manāʾiḥ al-qarāʾiḥ.

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  • 38

     Al-Shāfiʿī, al-Āmidī, 97.

  • 40

     Al-Shāfiʿī, al-Āmidī, 61.

  • 41

     Al-Shāfiʿī, al-Āmidī, 61. For instance, compare al-Āmidī’s discussion on ethical value (al-taḥsīn wa’l-taqbīḥ) in the Abkār and Iḥkām (Āmidī, Abkār, 2:117–44; idem, Iḥkām, 2:112–21).

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  • 42

     al-Shāfiʿī, al-Āmidī, 61. The Muntahā removes most of the dialectics and argumentation of the Iḥkām and limits itself to the conclusions. It seems that the Muntahā, like the Iḥkām, was written before the Ghāya and, therefore, it likely shares the theological doctrines of the Abkār. There is no noticeable change between the Iḥkām and Muntahā, at least on the topics investigated in this essay. For this reason, no further references will be made to it.

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  • 43

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:358.

  • 44

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:151.

  • 46

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:151. The obligation for God to act in the interest of His creation is important for Muʿtazilīs like al-Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār, who held that “uselessness [ʿabath] is a ground of evil.” Oliver Leaman, “‘Abd al-Jabbar and the Concept of Uselessness,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 41:1 (1980), 129–31, esp. 129.

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  • 54

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:153–5.

  • 57

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:155.

  • 58

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:155.

  • 59

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:158.

  • 60

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:155.

  • 61

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:158. O4–5 and R4–5 also deal with eternal damnation. See ibid., 2:155–6, 2:158–9.

  • 62

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:158.

  • 63

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:156.

  • 64

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:157.

  • 65

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:157.

  • 67

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:161.

  • 68

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:162. Similarly, al-Qarāfī writes that the world exhibits more harm (fasād) than benefit (maṣlaḥa); however, on the basis of inductive reasoning (istiqrāʾ), we know that the revealed laws (al-sharāʾiʿ) are for the benefit of human beings. Qarāfī, Nafāʾis, 7:3312.

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  • 69

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:155.

  • 70

     Āmidī, Abkār, 2:157. Al-Rāzī offers a similar argument in which he rejects the Muʿtazilī claim that God is obligated to act in certain ways (Rāzī, Nihāya, 3:292f). Al-Qarāfī does the same regarding the question of God’s wisdom. He rejects the Muʿtazilī understanding of wisdom, which is conditional on acting with the purpose of procuring benefits (maṣāliḥ). This condition, he writes, agrees with a conventional understanding of wisdom and is therefore inapplicable to God. Instead, he argues that for God to be wise means that He is described with perfection (kamāl), complete knowledge (al-ʿilm al-shāmil), and the seven attributes derived from entitative determinants (e.g. Power, Will, Knowledge) (al-ṣifāt al-sabʿa al-maʿnawiyya) (Qarāfī, Nafāʾis, 7: 3308). Elsewhere, al-Qarāfī criticizes al-Rāzī’s definition of wisdom on the grounds that it is influenced by the Muʿtazilī theory of ethical value. Al-Qarāfī continues: “We agree with the Muʿtazilīs on attributing wisdom to God, but we disagree over its interpretation. They interpret “wisdom” as ‘the obligatory pursuit of benefit (murāʿāt al-maṣāliḥ wujūban)’” (ibid., 9:3995). For a discussion of al-Āmidī‘s argument that it is invalid to analogize between the mundane and supernal, see Weiss, The Search for God’s Law, 53–6.

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  • 72

     Āmidī, Ghāya, 196.

  • 75

     Āmidī, Abkār, 5:40–52.

  • 76

     Āmidī, Ghāya, 13. In the Abkār, when listing the main doctrines of the Muʿtazilīs, the author mentions that they held that it is obligatory (yajib) for God to pursue rationales (ḥikma) in His actions. This reference to the position of the Muʿtazilīs on divine purposiveness is useful because it tells us the extent to which this doctrine betrays a commitment to a theological school and how important it was. It seems, therefore, that this doctrine was regarded as characteristic of the Muʿtazilī school. Āmidī, Abkār, 5:41.

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  • 78

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:329.

  • 79

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:339.

  • 80

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:357.

  • 81

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:312.

  • 85

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:359.

  • 87

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:361.

  • 88

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:361. This argument is repeated in the thirteenth objection. Ibid., 3:363.

  • 89

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:365.

  • 91

     Āmidī, Abkār, 3:361.

  • 92

     Āmidī, Abkār, 3:365.

  • 93

     Āmidī, Abkār, 3:361.

  • 94

     Āmidī, Abkār, 3:366.

  • 95

     Āmidī, Abkār, 3:362.

  • 96

     Āmidī, Abkār, 3:366.

  • 97

     Āmidī, Abkār, 3:362.

  • 99

     Āmidī, Abkār, 3:314, 366.

  • 100

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:366. Al-Rāzī argues for the lack of purposiveness in legal rulings because they are God’s speech (khiṭāb), which is pre-eternal, and pre-eternal speech cannot be purposive (Rāzī, Maḥṣūl, 5:127). Commenting on this, al-Qarāfī writes that pre-eternal speech must relate to a demand (iqtiḍāʾ) and a decision (takhyīr), or else it would not be a ruling. A legal ruling is composed of both pre-eternal speech and this relatum, where the latter lacks an ontological existence (ʿadamī). Thus, a ruling is a type of relationship (nisba) between pre-eternal speech and human actions. Such a relationship has no ontological existence, for which reason the ruling has no ontological existence because things composed of phenomena that are both ontologically existent (i.e. speech) and non-existent (i.e. the relatum of speech) are themselves ontologically non-existent. Because a ruling is ontologically non-existent, it can be established by something else, namely, a purpose. Qarāfī, Nafāʾis, 7: 3217–8.

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  • 101

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:363.

  • 102

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:367.

  • 106

     Aaron Zysow, The Economy of Certainty (Atlanta: Lockwood Press, 2013), 222–36. Felicitas Opwis writes that the sign model was used by those who held that the purpose of the law is inaccessible to human reason, while the motive model was used by those who held that the purposes are intelligible (Felicitas Opwis, Maṣlaḥa and the Purpose of the Law: Islamic Discourse on Legal Change from the 4th/10th to 8th/14th Century [Leiden: EJ Brill, 2010], 33f). Pace Opwis, al-Rāzī, who was a firm proponent of the sign model, also held that the objectives of the law are intelligible (although he argued against divine purposiveness). According to Zysow, the motive model was linked to the use of relevance (munāsaba, see below) in deriving the ratio legis (Zysow, The Economy of Certainty, 236). But the sign model also allows for the use of relevance, as the example of al-Rāzī demonstrates.

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  • 107

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:254. Noting the fact that most Ashʿarīs adopted the sign model and most Muʿtazilīs adopted the motive model, ʿĀyiḍ al-Shahrānī links the difference between the positions to the debate on ethical value. He also distinguishes between the ratio legis as a muʾaththir (something efficacious) and as a bāʿith (something that prompts), attributing the former understanding of the ratio legis to the Muʿtazilīs and the latter to al-Āmidī. The author cites a number of Ashʿarī legal theorists who rejected the Muʿtazilī understanding of the ratio legis because they considered it to be based on the Muʿtazilī definition of ethical value (ʿĀyiḍ al-Shahrānī, al-Taḥsīn wa’l-taqbīḥ al-ʿaqliyyān wa atharahumā fī masāʾil uṣūl al-fiqh maʿ munāqasha ʿilmiyya li-uṣūl al-madrasa al-ʿaqliyya al-ḥadītha, 3 vols. [Riyadh: Dār Kunūz Ishbīliyā li’l-Nashr wa’l-Tawzīʿ, 1429/2008], 2:271–80).

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  • 110

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:255.

  • 115

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:339. Al-Āmidī rejects Abū Zayd al-Dabbūsī’s (d. 430/1038) definition of relevance – defined as that which is agreeable to people of intelligence – because it can be easily contested. A jurist may simply claim that he does not find the ratio legis agreeable to him. This may explain why al-Dabbūsī did not allow for the identification of the ratio legis according to the criterion of relevance (ibid., 3:338f; cf. Zysow, The Economy of Certainty, 206 note 286).

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  • 116

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:339.

  • 117

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:289.

  • 118

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:289.This qualification for the ratio legis is mentioned in response to the objection of an interlocutor who argues that the purpose behind the ruling is the rationale, irregardless of the determining feature ( Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:2288–9).

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  • 120

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:288–90. Al-Āmidī discusses another interesting scenario where the rationale is present but the ruling is not. He argues that this scenario does not occur due to a deficiency in the ratio legis. Rather, even if the case could yield a greater rationale, the different ruling that applies (or does not apply) is due to different qualities that this case may have. He mentions the law of talion (qiṣāṣ), which is intended as a deterrent. If A cuts off B’s limb, B is entitled to equal retaliation. One may object that the same ruling, to retaliate by cutting off a limb, does not apply in the case of murder, despite the greater need to deter murder. Because murder has additional features not shared by injury to a limb, it receives a different ruling that is more appropriate (alyaq) to the rationale (murder entitles the family of the victim to seek retaliation through capital punishment against the aggressor).  Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:290f.

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  • 121

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:300.

  • 123

     Shihadeh, The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, 98.

  • 124

     Shihadeh, The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, 98.

  • 126

     Opwis, “Attributing Causality to God’s Law,” in Islamic Philosophy, Science, Culture, and Religion: Studies in Honor of Dimitri Gutas, ed. David Reisman and Felicitas Opwis (Leiden: EJ Brill, 2011), 397–418, esp. 415; see also idem, Maṣlaḥa and the Purpose of the Law, 120.

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  • 128

     Rāzī, Maḥṣūl, 5:179.

  • 131

     Rāzī, Maḥṣūl, 5:127.

  • 132

     Rāzī, Maḥṣūl, 5:157–8. Al-Rāzī offers another definition of suitability that is held by those who reject the use of rationales as rationes legis. However, he prefers the definition that accepts the use of rationales as rationes legis. Opwis, Maṣlaḥa and the Purpose of the Law, 97f.

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  • 133

     Rāzī, Maḥṣūl, 5:179.

  • 134

     Rāzī, Maḥṣūl, 5:176.

  • 135

     Rāzī, Maḥṣūl, 5:287. Felicitas Opwis writes: “Al-Rāzī argues that since the use of a [feature] as a ratio legis may be on account of an underlying reason, it is more appropriate that the underlying reason itself serves as the ratio legis for the ruling, due to the fact that the characteristic is effective on the ruling only because of the underlying reason that it entails benefit or averts harm. (Opwis, Maṣlaḥa and the Purpose of the Law, 123).” Al-Āmidī prefers a rationale that serves as the ratio legis, but only when it is determinate. Weiss also notes the controversy over the use of a rationale as the ratio legis (Weiss, The Search for God’s Law, 585). Al-Rāzī is aware of the controversy but argues for the use of an indeterminate rationale as a ratio legis. He recognizes a number of objections and offers lengthy rebuttals in defense of his position. Rāzī, Maḥṣūl, 5:287–293.

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  • 136

     Opwis, Maṣlaḥa and the Purpose of the Law, 107.

  • 137

     Rāzī, al-Maḥṣūl, 5:157.

  • 142

     Āmidī, Iḥkām, 3:301–2. Al-Āmidī also argues that a ruling can have more than one ratio legis for different cases. Ibid., 3:295.

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  • 143

     Frederick Schauer, Thinking Like a Lawyer: A New Introduction to Legal Reasoning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 35.

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  • 144

     See Weiss, The Search for God’s Law, 572. Khaled Abou El Fadl writes that in Islamic law, “[S]ophisticated conceptual frameworks were developed to regulate the application of the various jurisprudential tools employed in the process of legal determination. These conceptual frameworks were not only intended to distinguish legitimate and authoritative uses of legal tools, but, collectively, they were designed to bolster accountability, predictability, and the principle of the rule of law. (Khaled Abou El Fadl, “The Islamic Legal Tradition,” in The Cambridge Companion to Comparative Law, ed. Mauro Brussani and Ugo Mattei [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012], 295–312, esp. 297)”.

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